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Pruning Primer - Heading Back
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Heading Back
a 'heading back' cut Heading back is the selective cutting of a terminal shoot or branch back to a lateral bud; it causes vigorous new shoots and denser foliage to develop. Head back the branch to about 1/4 in (0.6 cm) above a bud that is facing the direction you want the new shoot to grow.

blueberry bush
This blueberry bush was headed back. Note how each of the stems was cut back to a different height which forces several new stems to grow from each cut. This produces a bush with a natural shape and will increase the amount of flowers and fruit produced.

When pruning a shrub, always head back shoots to several different heights so that you don't produce a top heavy plant with dense outer foliage that shades out lower growth. Never "lop" off branches all at the same height unless you want a shrub with all the foliage densely clustered at the top, and bare stems below. When you head back branches to different levels you produce a fuller and more natural looking shrub.

branchHeading back the terminal shoot of a young tree will cause the leader (main trunk) to branch - but note that you may get more new leaders than you want, so be ready to thin out the extras.

The pear tree in the photo would have a long, whiplike main leader and just a few very long whiplike branches if it had not been headed back over the past several years.

main leader cut
The main leader (trunk) of this pear tree has been headed back twice, resulting in a shorter tree (easier to pick the fruit) with a greater branch density (on which to produce more fruit).
lateral cut
This lateral branch has been headed back to a bud causing it to grow a more vertical branch. This serves to keep the tree from sprawling, constrains it to a smaller space and produces stronger branches that can more easily support the weight of the fruit.

Heading Back Pines
Heading back a pine 'candle'To produce denser growth in pine trees, cut off one-half of the terminal shoot (the "candle") before the needles begin to elongate in early spring. This causes new buds to form and produces a more compact, denser plant. Never do this at other times of the year because new buds will not develop.

Other kinds of pruning cuts:

Steve Christman 3/6/01; updated 12/26/03

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Tallahassee, Florida USA